World Cup Expansion Is Just Another Soulless Cash Grab

FIFA says it wants to spread joy when, really, it just wants to make even more money by diluting the World Cup

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Jan 10, 2017 at 11:42 AM ET

First-year FIFA president Gianni Infantino made World Cup expansion the bedrock of his stump speech, virtuously extolling how a swollen field would bring “so much joy” to previously unqualified countries.

But let’s not lose sight of what this really is: a blatant, unequivocal cash grab. FIFA knows it can make a ton of money here and that is not an opportunity FIFA is ever going to pass up.

The World Cup is already sport’s greatest tournament in its current format, with 32 teams divided into eight starting groups of four nations each. Every competitor plays a minimum of three games. Now, the Cup will grow by 50 percent to 48 teams for the 2026 edition with 16 groups of three teams each, guaranteeing only two matches per side. The knockout stage will grow by a round, including 32 squads instead of 16.

By FIFA’s own reckoning, this major revision to an already near-perfect event was examined carefully and done primarily for altruistic reasons—the aforementioned “joy,” lest you forget. The governing body wrote, “The decision was taken following a thorough analysis, based on a report that included four different format options. The study took into account such factors as sporting balance, competition quality, impact on football development, infrastructure, projections on financial position and the consequences for event delivery.”

With such stodgy, academic reasoning, how can anyone dare object to their motives? After all, doesn’t FIFA have a rich history of noble intentions and corruption avoidance? Wait, nevermind, it’s the opposite. Even by its own admission.

Indeed, this 48-nation field will reportedly increase revenue by about $1 billion—20 percent—with $640 million of that in pure profit. At what cost? Well, the dilution of group-stage play is ensured with so many additions to the field, and the odd number in each subset dictating that one nation remain idle, which could foster collusive forces with their two group counterparts perhaps having the motivation to play to a draw to make sure both advance. FIFA has signaled a chance of adding penalty kicks to avoid that because just what no one wants is more abominable matches decided via penalty kicks.

Most telling about Cup expansion is the proposed allocation of those 16 extra slots. As the Guardian noted, Asia’s delegation may well double in size. Currently, its federation quadrennially sends four or five countries to the event; now, it may well be eight or nine. South America, which also receives four or five slots presently, will inch up to six or seven.

While, yes, there are 48 countries in Asia and only 12 in South America, ought there be some meritorious consideration to the distribution? Of the 20 World Cups, Europe has won 11, and South America has claimed nine. No other continent has any. Only twice has Asia sent anyone to the quarterfinals and only once, Korea in 2002, has one of its nations reached the semifinals.

Let’s think, then, about why FIFA may be so interested in generating interest in Asia. Might it have something to do with—I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here—the combined 2.6 billion people who live in either China or India? That’s a lot of potential dollars, yuan, and rupees for FIFA coffers.

As Praful Patel, an Asian Football Confederation senior vice president told ESPNFC about the Cup expansion: “It would open up the World Cup to more countries and also generate more finances for FIFA. I also believe that an expanded tournament would help nations where football is still developing and allow them to increase the popularity of the game. This is something very important to Asia in particular. We estimate that we will be given at least another two slots, perhaps more, and this can only help the game in countries like India and China.”

There’s a reason the NBA has made major inroads in both countries, trying to grow the sport at both a grassroots level and with major corporate sponsors. The NFL and Major League Baseball have cracked into China some, too. China has already announced its plan to be a “first-rate major footballing power” by 2050. India’s top soccer league—inspired by Iceland’s Euro Cup success—is now in its third year and is launching its own amateur initiatives.

The European Club Association, among others, has already decried the influence of “politics and commerce” on the sport and the World Cup, and this expansion is really nothing but that.

FIFA is clearly trying to update an old saying: if it ain’t broke, you can probably make more money.